Inspirational Woman: Danielle Merfeld | Vice President, Chief Technology Officer, GE Renewable Energy

Danielle MerfeldHere we speak with Danielle Merfeld, Vice President, Chief Technology Officer at GE Renewable Energy.

Danielle tells us about her career in engineering, shares her top tips for success and addresses the importance of encouraging women into the industry.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background, and your current role

I am the Vice President, Chief Technology Officer of GE Renewable Energy. In this role, I lead technical efforts to develop differentiated products and services across the broadest renewable energy portfolio in the industry, covering onshore wind, offshore wind, grid solutions, solar PV, batteries and hydro. Some of the cool innovations we are working on are how to manufacture wind turbine blades and towers in a completely different way that makes them more efficient and lower cost, and how to connect more renewable energy to the grid while keeping it stable and resilient.

I champion sustainability efforts across the business, leading a team focused on achieving carbon neutrality, which is very fulfilling.  I have also spent several years as the co-leader of the GE Women’s Network, a global organisation focused on the recruitment, retention, development, and promotion of talented women across GE.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I didn’t really spend time thinking or planning my future career steps except for deciding early in my career to stay engaged in technology.  Otherwise, I was intensely focused on whatever role I was in, until I was approached about the next exciting opportunity and asked to consider a new role.  Each step was an adventure and part of a journey that I could never have planned out in advance.  With each successful step forward, I grew more confident in allowing my skills and interests to develop together as a core strategy in building my career.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

My biggest career challenge was stepping into a role that was significantly broader in scope than anything I had experienced before.  This was challenging mostly due to my own insecurities about whether I was going to be successful. Luckily, I got great coaching from a senior leader who stated in a matter-of-fact way that no one in the company had experience across this breadth, so the job requirements included a good deal of learning.  If I could learn then I could do the job.  That made me see the role in a new light and I got better at asking questions to deepen my understanding without worrying about how that might be perceived by others.  This also taught me one of the magic ingredients to being a successful leader.  Ask questions!  It makes experts on the team feel valued, helps expand personal knowledge, and promotes a culture of continuous learning and teamwork.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

My biggest career achievement to date has been to seed and foster truly disruptive approaches that have made it into our products.  I was only a part of the team that delivered these successes, but my support and advocacy made a difference.  I feel honoured to be in a position to elevate and support the work of smart people who deliver outcomes that truly make the world better for all.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

I believe that being an effective team player has been a major contributor to my success.  Knowing the elements that I bring to the team – such as curiosity, technical insight, and inspiration – and being able to highlight others for what they bring, has enabled us to do more as a collective than we could do on our own.  From my first team to my current team, this has been the common thread.

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What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology?

Especially for young engineers, I think it is important to stay curious and remain open to where the best opportunities to contribute may be for you.  The job opportunities will be plentiful and span across many engineering disciplines. I have noticed working with many engineering teams across multiple disciplines that systems engineering is becoming more critical. Because the systems that we’re designing and using are becoming more complex and interconnected, it’s important to understand how vital teamwork is in designing the solutions of tomorrow. Therefore, I think it’s important for young engineers to develop expertise in an area they’re passionate about while also learning how to be effective in collaborating and delivering across a highly diverse team.

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

There are always challenges for those in the minority, due to the way human nature causes people to favour others most like themselves.  This is why organisations need to continue to focus on fostering diversity in order to enable all employees – including women – to succeed.  This isn’t just because it’s “the right thing to do”, but because studies show that more diverse companies are also more successful.  Barriers for women in technology will be fully overcome when they are properly represented in the technical ranks and found in the same proportion as in their communities.  In the meantime, we as leaders need to actively cultivate an environment where women are engaged in setting the culture to attract and retain more women. Fostering affinity groups that support women in tech, provide an outlet to challenge the status quo and find ways to improve is a great example of how to do that.

On an individual level, I would encourage young female engineers to continue to challenge themselves. Too often I’ve seen young women pass on promising opportunities because they are assessing them against some potential future scenario in their life. I encourage them to take the next step that truly excites them and feels right at the time – with the reminder that they can always make changes to their trajectory when their life changes. Putting yourself in a position to do something exciting and challenging is the best way to grow your career, and more importantly, enjoy yourself at work.

Do you think there are better ways to talk about pioneering women who have played a key role in tech?

I think there is an opportunity to be more nuanced. Often profiles of women in tech – especially famous women in tech who are often presented as sources of inspiration – fall into some clichéd categories.  First are those that highlight women who sacrificed to push scientific understanding forward, such as Marie Curie, whose work in radioactivity led to her untimely death. Also noted are the women who toiled in obscurity, such as Dr. Rosalind Franklin, due to historical and cultural bias regarding women in STEM. (Dr. Franklin played a key role in the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA but was famously not credited or recognized with her male colleagues.)  Lastly, there are those that highlight glamorous women who have shocked the world by driving significant progress in technology – the ‘beauty + brains’ formula.  My favourite one here is Hedy Lamarr, the bombshell movie star of the silver screen, who developed a new communication system that was used in World War II to defeat the Nazis, and led to today’s Wi-Fi, GPS and Bluetooth,

As we drive for equality and see more women in STEM fields in visible roles across industries and around the world, I think that we can become more nuanced about who we highlight and why. We can identify with the biggest challenges facing the world today and look for those who have given us tools and resources to rise to the challenge of facing them together. One of the best examples of an inspirational STEM figure is Rachel Carson, who is often credited with starting the grassroots environmental movement.  Her work in marine biology – and later agro-industrial chemicals – led her to writing books that spoke to the hearts and minds of a population. She awakened a new perspective in many by making complex scientific analysis approachable and understandable.

There are currently only 17 per cent of women working in tech, if you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry?

To accelerate the pace of change for women in tech, I would create a massive internship programme to foster a strong pipeline of women who could experience relevant and engaging work in their field while they are getting their technical degrees.  Then I would follow it up with hiring practices that bring women onto diverse teams so they can experience a more balanced and fairer environment as their initial baseline.  A positive experience at the onset of a career can set the stage for more individual confidence, a supportive network of colleagues, and higher expectations for the team or company culture.  This should lead to a positive flywheel effect where expectations drive behaviours to support more diversity.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

Resources are great, but I recommend that whenever possible women in tech should be on a podcast, write a book or article, or speak at a conference where they can showcase what makes them great technologists.  More visibility is great for one’s personal brand and it also provides valuable examples of different types of women doing different types of (great) technical work.

What is the thing you wished others understood about women in tech?

I mentioned that studies show that more diverse companies are more successful. Some of this has been traced to having a balance of risk management styles in leadership, or more collaborative and supportive teams fostered by societal norms for how women engage in communities.  I believe that it is also way more than that. 

For example, a balanced approach requires some characteristics that might be considered masculine and others considered feminine.  Compassion and empathy are two characteristics that many would associate with the feminine, but NOT necessarily associate with business success or technical innovation.  As business and technology evolve it is becoming clear that these traits are more important than many realise.  Approaching the complex and inter-related challenges that the world faces through the lens of compassion enables teams to develop more thorough solutions that work on a more fundamental level. Empathy for the user (or beneficiary) of a future technical solution enables the developing team to better ‘see things through their eyes’ and create a more satisfying experience that addresses the challenge at a more holistic level.  In short, women are a necessary part of our technology community because they are different from men, not in spite of it.